Though not lauded by many as a classic, the 1974 version of Death Wish was a landmark film that remains shocking and provocative to this day, and influenced a countless number of imitators in the wake of its success.
A 1981 sequel was a vicious satire of those imitators, and a third film in 1985 was a hilarious parody. All three movies, directed by Michael Winner and starring Charles Bronson, were torn to shreds by critics. But they wrote the book on the revenge movie, and then slammed it shut it in anarchistic style (the fourth and fifth entries in the series can be safely ignored).
And here’s a 2018 remake written by Joe Carnahan (The Grey), directed by Eli Roth (Hostel), and starring Bruce Willis, all three of whom couldn’t be better suited to a project like this, about a peace-loving liberal who becomes a gun-toting right-wing vigilante after the brutal murder of his wife. It also couldn’t come out at a better time.
Except for one thing: the creators get this story so fundamentally wrong that it simply becomes another gutless revenge drama that says nothing about the society it portrays, and serves only as an insult to a classic series of films.
For a while, however, Death Wish 2018 at least keeps up appearances. The action has been amusingly transported from New York to Chicago – the new US capital of gun violence – and Paul Kersey (Willis) is a now a surgeon instead of an architect, which provides an interesting contrast. Kersey tends to a gang member who has shot a cop in an early scene that takes place offscreen because this movie can’t afford to challenge its audience.
Similarly, the murder of Kersey’s wife (Elisabeth Shue) and attempted murder of his daughter (Camila Morrone) also happen offscreen (compare that to the original, in one of the most unsettling attack scenes to feature in a major Hollywood film). The daughter is neither raped nor subjected to further trauma (she cannot even recall the attack) but instead slips into a coma for reasons of plot convenience.
This allows Kersey to dawn a hoodie and go full vigilante in all of two scenes, shooting up carjackers and drug dealers and inspiring real-life morning radio DJs like Mancow (who might have the most dialogue of anyone in this movie) to inanely ponder whether vigilante justice is good or bad so the audience doesn’t have to.
We’re halfway through this Death Wish, and it’s a dumb but serviceable update. Especially dumb because of scenes like this: the movie needs to get an untraceable gun in Kersey’s hands, but instead of a lengthy subplot like in the original, here a gangbanger conveniently drops a glock on the floor while bleeding out on Kersey’s operating table. Uh-huh.
And then, the filmmakers lose the plot.
The original Death Wish, the classic revenge movie that influenced all others, is in fact not a revenge movie. Despite all the vigilantism, Paul Kersey never finds or even looks for those responsible for the destruction of his family. He’s a broken man lashing out at a society that has failed him, and revenge would only justify his vigilante actions.
But Carnahan and Roth, displaying no understanding of this fundamental story, see fit to fix what ain’t wrong. And not only that: they use the same exact unbelievable contrivance they used earlier to give Kersey the gun.
Because guess who’s next up on Kersey’s operating table? Yes, it’s the gangbanger responsible for the destruction of Kersey’s family, still wearing his stolen watch.
And the rest of the film becomes a slick, brainless revenge movie like all the others. For most this will be acceptable disposable entertainment, and it’s not exactly poorly made. But for fans of the original, or anyone looking for some fleeting thought in their violent revenge drama, this is the absolute pits.
Author Brian Garfield, who wrote the original novel Death Wish was based on, was reportedly so unhappy with the original film that he was inspired to write a sequel (Death Sentence, which was ‘adapted’ into a totally unrelated movie starring Kevin Bacon years later).
I’d love to hear what he thinks of this new movie, which plasters his name across the end credits as if it were a more accurate version of novel rather than just another vapid remake of the earlier film (hint: it isn’t).